The Brian is Wired for Story: Use It!

Poynter, a journalism organization, has a great post on how well-written prose activates the brain’s physical response centers: reading about kicking a ball activates the sites associated with motor control, for example. Based on these studies, author Chip Scanlan suggests five important tips to enrich your writing.

My favorite? #5, “Cultivate a nose for story.” In my writing classes, I frequently have to remind students that using sensory details from all five senses should include scents. Smell is the most primal of all the senses, and can evoke a person or setting more fully than simple description. Consider this excerpt from my memoir:

“Mom maneuvers whatever car we have – a heavy Ford or Buick with bald tires and no air conditioning – down steep, rocky dirt roads, looking for swimming holes along the West or Middle Fork of the White River, sloshing across the shallows to find a good place to park. We bounce past a white-smooth sycamore tree or leaning cottonwood with a rope hanging off it, where teenagers whoop and splash into the slow-running jade water. Little kids in water-wings fight over beach balls and big inflatable sharks; sun-burnt grown-ups laze in innertubes and floats, a beer or cigarette dangling from one hand. Fishermen in cut-offs stand near the shore, styrofoam coolers full of beer and bait floating around their knees. Pudgy pale moms sit in folding chairs, hollering at their splashing kids; nut-brown women, slathered in oil, lay on long towels on the rocks with their bikini tops undone. Someone’s got the doors open on their Chevy Nova, blasting out Creedence and Foghat and Skynyrd, and it smells like charcoal and coconut tanning oil and, sometimes, a little whiff of pot smoke.”

There’s a lot of description there, not just of what it looks and sounds like but what people are doing. Then, I end it with the scents – scents that I will always associate with summer. Lisa Cron’s book, “Wired for Story,” is another excellent resource for using “your brain on reading” studies to make your stories resonate deeply.


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